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Unasked and unanswered / July 08, 2020
What happens when the irresistible need to get kids back in school meets the immovable reality of a deadly health pandemic? This is not a question we should have to be asking ourselves — countries around the world are finding ways to resume school safely and reasonably effectively, the U.S. not so much — but it’s the topic uppermost in the minds of families around the country and in Southside Virginia, and time is running short for answers.

In Mecklenburg County, we got our answer last week: The school division revealed plans to move forward with full-time, in-person classroom instruction beginning in a few short weeks — and if the saying “hope is not a plan” is ever to be refuted, now would be a very good time for that to happen. Barring the unexpected, however, it’s hard to imagine how this rosy educational scenario of school more-or-less as usual can last more than a few weeks. This probably sounds unduly harsh toward Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols and members of the school board, to whom an apology is offered; all of their available options are bad, and you can’t help but to empathize with those who have been put in an impossible position through no fault of their own.

But: Can anyone envision the coronavirus not invading school buildings, with their cramped spaces, daily hustle and bustle and suboptimal HVAC systems? Some of the protective measures that supposedly will be in place for the new school year, such as enforced social distancing among students, are the stuff of fantasy, not everyday reality. It’s also unrealistic to think we’ll just plow through an inevitable outbreak of disease without sending students back home for the semester. Hoping no one cares about sickness and death may be the official policy of a sociopathic White House, but parents, teachers, faculty and local communities won’t stand for it, nor should they.

Kids need to be back in school, full time, as soon as humanly possible. Setting aside the real and terrible spinoff effects of keeping students at home — the burdens imposed on working parents, the sense of isolation that can overwhelm kids in any number of ways, the very real possibility that relying on grandparents and middle-age adults for day care will further ramp up the spread of the virus — canceling school as we did in the spring is an educational disaster of almost unimaginable scope. In small rural communities such as our own, there are no good options for most families to turn to for their children’s educations outside of the local public school system. Free public school is the foundation of our democracy and the single most invigorating aspect of hometown life, for students and parents alike. Children in low- and middle-income households, white, black and brown, stand to suffer the greatest harm from being kept out of school, especially as more well-to-do families find ways for their children to learn at home or at high-dollar private schools (which will inevitably encounter their own covid-related issues). The urgency of getting kids back in classrooms is clear, even if the pathway is not. Can we muster the creativity, and the cash, to make it happen?

One idea I wish we were hearing more about is a school day broken up into morning-afternoon shifts. All plans for a partial reopening of school spring from the imperative of drastically lowering the number of students inside school buildings at any given time. (You won’t be able to keep students six feet apart throughout the day, but you can have a lot fewer students occupying the same space). In neighboring Halifax County, a morning-afternoon school schedule was kicked around in the initial planning for the new school year, then the idea was quietly dropped — the result, I’m sure, of people a lot more knowledgeable than me confronting logistical challenges that are overwhelming, if not insurmountable. Managing bus transportation alone would be a massive challenge; juggling teacher schedules might be a nightmare. Even if the school division were to pare down the curriculum to the essentials, it’s not as though you can pull away the FFA advisor and reassign her to teach in the math department. Still, reducing in-building populations makes a lot of sense as a means of preserving “normal” school during the pandemic, and any option that gets us closer to that goal should not be readily abandoned.

How about outdoor classes? Science tells us that the risks of transmitting COVID-19 is much higher indoors than outdoors — and almost all schools have campus spaces that could conceivably be used for classroom learning. (Gyms and auditoriums are indoors, too, but their cavernous dimensions should make them adaptable for similar purposes.) I would much sooner see school transformed into tent cities than “virtual academies,” given the obvious drawbacks of online learning. (Let’s not even bring up the lack of serviceable internet access in much of Mecklenburg County and rural America writ large.) By the way, it should be apparent to everyone by now that high school football is not happening this fall. Why not convert over stadiums for classroom use, starting immediately?

This is just me spitballing through a few random ideas to address vexing issues that seemingly have defeated actual qualified professionals. But one can’t help but to wonder if a big part of our problem isn’t simply an ungodly mix of wishful thinking, all-too-quick reversion to the mean and an unwillingness to go out on a limb with ideas that, to be fair, hold the potential to blow up in people’s face at any moment. All of us, members of what’s generally known as “the public,” must allow for the possibility of failure if we are to have any hope of achieving success with resuming school. It may be the half-and-half academic experience — a mix of in-person and online — is the best we’re going to get. But before we sign off on that reality, a few questions are in order.

First, what must happen to uphold the first responsibility of any school reopening plan — protecting students and staff to the maximum extent possible? What level of risk should we be willing to accept? For existing health reasons, some teachers (and students) will not be able to return to school as long as there’s no vaccine or clear-cut treatment for COVID-19. Aside from the obvious — social distancing, disinfecting — what other steps can we undertake to lessen the dangers? It seems clear at this point that younger people are less susceptible than most to serious illness and death from COVID-19, although their exposure isn’t zero, either. Thinking that younger adults could step in and teach classes in place of experienced, more vulnerable older educators is too much to ask, but how about drastically expanding the near-peer teaching and guidance programs that many school divisions already have in place to hire kids out of college? Placing under-employed college grads in tutoring jobs (and paying them reasonably well) would be a tremendous upgrade over educating students with Chromebooks as their main platform.

We know that mask wearing greatly reduces the risks of spreading the coronavirus, even though America suffers the confounding problem of a substantial slice of the population, egged on by a demented president, rejecting the clear guidance of health professionals. Why not use schools as leverage to compel compliance by parents and family members? The proposition is straightforward — if you want your kids in school, they’ll have to wear masks in the hallways at all times, or you’ll be getting a call to come pick them up. (I don’t think an all-day student face-covering policy is feasible, especially for children in the younger grades, but presumably masks wouldn’t be needed quite as much in the classroom as long as students and teachers are able to maintain separation from one another.) In my experience as a parent, few things bring people together quite like shared school experiences — teacher-parent conferences, extracurricular activities, assemblies and such. It’s a lot to ask schools to serve as a fulcrum to incentivize people to follow public health guidance, but we ask schools to do everything else for the good of society without blinking an eye, so why not this? Mandating a standard of behavior by all individuals — students, families, staff — as a condition for entering the school building each day is something I think most families would get behind, with peer pressure (and threat of student suspensions) brought to bear against those who don’t. It’s one thing to listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci on TV urging people to wear masks. It’s another to hear the same request coming from your school principal and PTO board.

If our national response to the coronavirus pandemic weren’t a complete disaster, it might be worth talking about virus testing and contact tracing, a massive mobilization of trained health and education personnel, even something as straight-forward as universal high-speed internet access. Alas, none of these achievable public goods will be riding to the rescue in the months ahead. Honestly, the best we can probably expect at this point is for county schools to muddle through the fall semester and regroup with a better plan for the spring, assuming the entire year hasn’t been canceled by then. (In the past week, America has averaged more than 50,000 new coronavirus cases per day, and hospitals and health providers are once again running into PPE shortages. The economy is headed south, fast. So, so much winning for Team USA.) We haven’t even discussed money — where will it all come from, to hire staff and run more bus routes, to pay for tent rentals and recruit tutors and substitutes for in-person instruction? Maybe Congress will get its act together and send aid to the states (which, unlike the federal government, can’t run budget deficits or fire up the money printing press). Absent outside help, all Mecklenburg has at its disposal is a budget reserve of several tens of millions of dollars, and no one is yet asking whether now’s the time to use a portion of that money. (My answer would be “maybe.”)

So many questions unasked, so many answers never to be contemplated. Considering the entire sorry situation, the idea of plunging ahead with school without a feasible plan for getting through the year is exactly what you’d expect — a pursuit every bit as fruitful as figuring out which one must prevail, the irresistible force or the immovable object. Both and neither, I suppose. If that answer doesn’t suit, would a coin flip work?

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